Literature

Happy 200th Birthday, Henry David Thoreau!

July 12, 2017
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Happy 200th Birthday, Henry David Thoreau!

                  Henry David Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817. Laura Dassow Walls explains the trajectory of his life, which shaped his thinking about the world in every way: He was born on a colonial-era farm into a subsistence economy based on agriculture, on land that had sustained a stable Anglo-American community for two centuries and, before that, Native American communities for eleven thousand years. People had been shaping Thoreau’s landscape since the melting of the glaciers. By the time he died, in 1862, the Industrial Revolution had reshaped his world: the railroad transformed Concord from a local economy of small farms and artisanal industries to a suburban node on a global network of industrial farms and factories. His beloved woods had been cleared away, and the rural rivers he sailed in his youth powered cotton mills. In 1843, the railroad cut right across a corner of Walden Pond, but in 1845 Thoreau built his house there anyway, to confront the railroad as part of his reality. By the time he left Walden, at least twenty passenger and freight trains screeched past his house daily. His response was to call on his . . .

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Thoreau: A Life

June 12, 2017
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Thoreau: A Life

Coming this July. (A teaser, from Publishers Weekly: “The wonder is that, given her book’s richness, Walls still leaves the reader eager to read Thoreau. Her scholarly blockbuster is an awesome achievement, a merger of comprehensiveness in content with pleasure in reading.”) . . .

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Amitav Ghosh interview in BOMB

June 7, 2017
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Amitav Ghosh interview in BOMB

Amitav Ghosh, on climate change, Ray Bradbury, and “serious fiction,” in conversation with Curt Stager, at BOMB (excerpt after the jump). *** Curt Stager: You are primarily known as a novelist. What led you to write this nonfiction book? Amitav Ghosh: Climate change became a matter of personal urgency for me while I was writing my 2005 novel The Hungry Tide. The novel is set in the Sundarbans, the great mangrove forest of the Bengal Delta. While working on the book I realized that this region was already being impacted by rising sea levels and a retreating coastline. In the years after that, even though I was occupied with a project of a different kind (the Ibis trilogy), I found myself becoming more and more preoccupied with climate change—no doubt because the impact was increasingly obvious. After I finished the trilogy, I felt a great need to put down my thoughts on environmental change and its bearing on my practice as a writer. I might add here, that the distinction between fiction and nonfiction is itself beginning to look increasingly strained in this era of anthropogenic climate change. CS: What, exactly, do you mean by The Great Derangement? Is it related to . . .

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Jed Purdy on Henry David Thoreau (and our new bio!)

June 5, 2017
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Jed Purdy on Henry David Thoreau (and our new bio!)

Laura Dassow Walls’s Henry David Thoreau: A Life (forthcoming this July) is set to be one of 2017’s blockbuster literary events: years in the making (the first Thoreau bio in a decade+) and hitting the printer at just over 600 pages, the book has already garnered pre-publication superlatives, piped up by every outlet who could get their hands on a galley, from Publishers Weekly to the Chronicles of Higher Education. And now, even the think-piece heavies are starting to weigh in—here’s an excerpt after the jump from one of our favorites, Jedediah Purdy, in his long-form piece on appreciating Thoreau, fresh off his read of Walls’s powerhouse biography, at the Nation. *** I would bet that fewer Americans have read Walden than have heard that Thoreau’s mother did his laundry. Yet Thoreau persists. Laura Dassow Walls, who teaches English at Notre Dame, has written an engaging, sympathetic, and subtly learned biography that makes a strong case for Thoreau’s importance; she also seems a little baffled that anyone could fail to admire him. Her Thoreau was an abolitionist who brought Frederick Douglass to speak at the Concord Lyceum—a kind of community university—and participated in the Underground Railroad, to the point of risking charges of treason by helping enslaved people flee . . .

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Tough Enough?

May 22, 2017
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Tough Enough?

From a recent profile of Deborah Nelson’s latest book Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil, at WBUR: In the book’s introduction, Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Chicago, acknowledges that these women initially “do not constitute a recognizable group.” In fact, each was quite determinedly not part of any organized faction. However, by book’s end Nelson has shown that, for all their differences, their work shares an essential bond: unsentimentality. Or, in Nelson’s expanded phrase: an “aesthetic, political, and moral obligation to face painful reality unsentimentally.” This artistic backbone would be useful in any era, but it was especially so in post-WWII America when the scale of suffering from the war, the Holocaust, the atom bomb, was practically impossible to comprehend. These horrors were followed by the Vietnam War, assassinations and the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. Nelson posits that there were two primal, contradictory responses to the events: empathy, “that required the public sharing of feelings,” or irony and coolness. The former could devolve into wallowing and the latter could disintegrate into disregard. Neither one a good jumpstart for external action or internal growth. In their work, the women of “Tough Enough” each . . .

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Crime Scenes: Donald Westlake on Screen

April 26, 2017
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Crime Scenes: Donald Westlake on Screen

Great news for fans of Donald E. Westlake—aka Richard Stark; aka Alan Marshall; aka, all the other pseudonyms—this May 12–14, the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, NY, is playing host to Crime Scenes, a 7-film series of the author’s screen adaptations, co-curated by Eric Hynes, David Schwartz, and our own Levi Stahl. Among the highlights are the O.G. Point Blank  (May 12, accompanied by a conversation with Abby Westlake, Donald Westlake’s wife, and historian Luc Sante, moderated by LTS), Godard’s Made in the U.S.A. (May 14), and Anjelica Huston’s star turn in The Grifters (May 13). Here’s a more expansive description from MoMI (visit their site to view the complete schedule, here): Donald E. Westlake (1933–2008) was born in Brooklyn and grew up mostly in Albany. He claimed that the first word he learned to read was “police.” “Sometimes,” he wrote, “life really is banal.” As a young man, he moved to New York and learned how to write in large part by seeing how not to do it, assessing submissions at a literary agency that also encouraged amateurs to send in work to be critiqued for a fee. That led to him writing a few stories to spec for low-end magazines, then a stint churning . . .

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The Great Derangement: On fiction and climate change

February 15, 2017
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The Great Derangement: On fiction and climate change

From Lawrence Lenhart’s  recent review of The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, at the Rumpus: The largest section of The Great Derangement examines “Story” (the consignment and suppression of literary forms), but Ghosh also looks at the impact of alternate histories and global politics on climate change discourse. He wags his finger at those who would blame Indian and Chinese modernization for bringing us to the tipping point; instead he points to western idealism and technophilia that created the myth that everyone can have two cars, a washing machine, and refrigerator, when in fact “modernity can only be practiced by a small minority of the world’s population… not because of technical or economic limitations but because the earth would asphyxiate in the process.” What’s more, Ghosh directs our attention to the irony that “the Anthropocene has reversed the temporal order of modernity: those at the margins,” Tuvaluans and southern Bangladeshis for example, “are now the first to experience the future that awaits all of us.” Elsewhere Ghosh takes exception to John Updike’s description of the novel as an “individual moral adventure.” This conception makes us more likely to tell stories about the fall of the Berlin Wall or the . . .

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RIP Tzvetan Todorov (1939–2017)

February 9, 2017
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RIP Tzvetan Todorov (1939–2017)

Tzvetan Todorov (1939–2017)—literary theorist, intellectual historian, and philosopher—died earlier this week; in particularly uncanny circumstances, our free e-book of the month happens to be his The Fear of Barbarians. Rather than link to an obit, we’re going to reblog a conversation between Todorov and media scholar WJT Mitchell—who had never met in person or previously exchanged correspondence—that unfolded over three days on our blog, back in December 2010, on the heels of the then-recent publications of Barbarians and Mitchell’s Cloning Terror. Little more than six years ago, and the topics they discuss—the politics of occupation, the war on terror, the then-emergent Wikileaks, Goya, the US State Department’s penchant for torture, Guantanamo, cloning—feel both like prescient observations from a time now past, and nearly enraging in their unfortunate contemporaneity. Below, you’ll find links to Parts II and III. Download your free copy of The Fear of Barbarians here. ** We’re kicking things off with a series of letters between Tzvetan Todorov, author of The Fear of Barbarians: Beyond the Clash of Civilizations and W. J. T. Mitchell, author of Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present on the visual imagery of the war on terror, our current global political climate, and the role of . . .

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Alice Kaplan on the origins of “Meursault”

February 8, 2017
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Alice Kaplan on the origins of “Meursault”

Meursault, the protagonist (or anti-hero) of Albert Camus’s The Stranger, is one of literature’s all-time classic characters—a French-Algerian, emotionally detached drifter who murders an Arab in a griefless rage. Below, Alice Kaplan, author of the National Book Critics Circle-nominated Looking for The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic, writes at Wonders and Marvels on the origins of the character’s name, and her theory as to why Camus picked the epithet he did. *** For any French reader, that name can only signify the delicious and expensive white Burgundy wine. I was really shocked when I looked at the only surviving manuscript of The Stranger and discovered that Camus writes his character’s name without a “u” throughout. Where did that “u” come from? Some Camus experts claim he thought of the name change at a dinner party where he was served an especially good bottle of the Burgundy wine. Then there’s the story of the contest. Every November, a literary prize of 3,000 bottles of Meursault wine was awarded to a book celebrating the glory of the land. An ad for the prize appeared in the French press in November, 1941, as Camus was putting finishing touches on his novel. Although Meursault isn’t a very funny . . .

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Alice Kaplan’s Looking for The Stranger is an NBCC Award finalist

January 18, 2017
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Alice Kaplan’s Looking for The Stranger is an NBCC Award finalist

Congrats to Alice Kaplan, the John M. Musser chair in French literature at Yale University, whose most recent book Looking for The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic, was named a finalist for the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. The honor is nothing new for Kaplan—two of her previous books, The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach (which was also nominated for a National Book Award) and French Lessons: A Memoir, were also finalists, in the general nonfiction and autobiography/biography categories. The National Book Critics Circle awards, selected by a rotating group of rotating professional book review editors and critics, “honor the best literature published in the United States in six categories—autobiography, biography, criticism, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.” Stay tuned: winners will be announced on March 16, 2017, in a ceremony at the New School. To read more about Looking for The Stranger, click here. . . .

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